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Ulster now face a difficult path

By Niall Crozier

As the longest serving of the three first-choice front-five forwards Ulster are losing, Tom Court is well placed to speak on how their departure is likely to translate next season.

The Irish-qualified Australian enlisted in 2006 and in his eight seasons made 154 appearances for his adopted province. Now he is moving on; as from next season the big loose-head will be turning out for London Irish.

That is likely to see him packing down opposite New Zealander John Afoa, who is joining Gloucester. It promises to be quite a battle when the former Ulster team-mates go head to head in the Aviva Premiership.

The third member of the exiting trio is South African lock Johann Muller, Ulster's captain for each of the past three seasons. He has now retired.

Straight-talking Court told it like it is in assessing the test awaiting Ulster.

"It's going to be tough next year," he said. "Obviously they have tried to re-build; Humph (David Humphreys) has been working hard, not necessarily trying to get like for like but to get a good fit of players who not only will fill the role but will grow into it.

"It's always going to be tough when you're replacing a World Cup-winning Springbok, a World Cup-winning All Black and a British Lion. But I think that's a massive opportunity for younger guys, plus those who are coming in.

"All of those are positions where there are opportunities for local guys to stamp their authority and have a crack," he said.

"I think the best thing about Mark Anscombe (Ulster coach) is that he has been very good in giving boys a chance. If they get in there and do well, then he'll give them another go. And if they keep playing well then they'll keep getting picked."

Although he is moving on, there was nothing of the 'not my problem, mate' about Court in his assessment of the challenge Ulster will face next season.

"It's obviously going to be a rebuilding phase," he continued. "But it's exciting in that you're not really sure how it's going to work out or what the combinations are going to be next year.

"But I think that's a good thing; all of the squad – as well as the public – should be excited to think that the guys are going to be fighting tooth and nail trying to get in there.

"Hopefully the boys will step up and be able to do the job. Hopefully it won't be too long until they're right up there where the team has been in the last few years.

"It's always a tough proposition to try and replace very, very experienced guys, but I think Humph has been working hard and hopefully that pans out well for Ulster."

Given that Ulster failed to win a trophy while players like Muller, Afoa and Court were on board, supporters can be forgiven for feeling that it will be even less likely without them. Again the London-bound prop was wholly balanced in his verdict.

"I wouldn't say it's a step back, but it's definitely going to be a lot tougher," he reckoned.

"There's a psychological blow but you've got to remember that there's still going to be a lot of the same players.

"And I think the fact that some of us are leaving should drive the others – especially some of the younger guys – to push on and fill some of the roles. It will be interesting to see how they go next year – particularly in the forward pack.

"It'll be interesting to see how that balances out. I think it will be tough for those who are coming in to get into the team, to be honest – like Ruaidhri Murphy, for example."

Listing causes for optimism regarding the front five, he added: "Callum Black has been very, very consistent; in fact, I would argue that he has been Ulster's most consistent player over the last two years.

"Andy Warwick has come in, put his hand up and shown that not only has he got the ability – he's got the right mentality, the courage and the passion to do the Ulster jersey proud, too.

"Ricky Lutton has come in and has stood up against some of the best packs in Europe in doing the job.

"Iain Henderson has been a bit of a revelation in the second row this year. Obviously he's a very talented boy – an explosive player. Mark has put him in the second row and he's started to settle there. He's been picked for the Irish tour as a second row.

"And Dan Tuohy as well is very experienced and I think with Johann leaving that gives him a chance to stand up as a leader. He has been a very good player, but this will maybe give him a bit more space to express himself."

David Busby – one of only two Ulster players in the PwC-sponsored Ireland under-20 squad for next month's IRB Junior World Championship in New Zealand – has been ruled out by injury.

The Queen's University back three player picked up a knee injury during a training session, leaving Frank Taggart (Belfast Harlequins) Ulster's sole representative in the 28-man squad.

Ireland, joined in Pool B by France, Fiji and Wales, open with a match against the French on Monday, June 2 in QBE Stadium, Auckland.

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